Podcast: Thinking Biblically about Transgenderism (Denny Burk)
This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
In this episode, Denny Burk, contributor to Designed for Joy: How the Gospel Impacts Men and Women, Identity and Practice, discusses how Christians should think about transgenderism. He walks through the Bible's countercultural teaching on gender and sexuality, offers timely advice for parents who want to be proactive about helping their kids navigate these issues, and answers two critical questions many of us have when it comes to the transgender movement: how did we get here, and what's next?
Designed for Joy
Owen Strachan, Jonathan Parnell
This book explores what the Bible’s teaching on men and women looks like in practice and helps readers embrace God’s good design as a path to true joy and lasting fulfillment.
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- The Current State of Culture
- Brief Historical Lead-Up
- Culturally Conditioned Ideas about Gender
- Feelings, Biology, and Transgenderism
- Are Christians Being Unloving?
- Gender Stereotyping
- Dealing with Cultural Pressure as Parents
- Practical Advice for Talking to Our Kids
- What’s Next?
- Encouragement for Those Struggling
The Current State of Culture
I want to start by reading a tweet by the ACLU that showed up in my Twitter feed just yesterday, which was apparently International Men's Day. I didn't realize that—they had that hashtag on the tweet. Their tweet read in part, “There's no one way to be a man. . . . Men who get pregnant and give birth are men. Trans and non-binary men belong. #InternationalMen'sDay.” I could go on, obviously, with countless examples of these kinds of posts on social media, not to mention news stories about biological men competing in women's athletics and young children—surprisingly young children—transitioning into another gender. So I guess my first question, which I think maybe many Christians would resonate with, is how did we get here?
There's been a long move, in the wake of the sexual revolution, to redefine gender norms. The sexual revolution wasn't just about the pill and about abortion. It was about those things, but it was about more than those things because there was a fundamental redefinition of what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman. Closely associated with the sexual revolution was the growth of second-wave feminism and the idea that gender is a social construct—it has no inherent connection to who we are biologically. So over the years you've just seen some things coming loose. Well before anyone was thinking that there was any big cultural push towards transgenderism or even towards gay marriage, you had a loosening of gender norms. By that I mean this idea that there's a binary between male and female and that there's a social consequence to being male and female that's not arbitrary, but that is normative and is connected to creation. So I think things started coming unspooled decades ago in that sense. But in more recent history, I think what you've seen happening is a really big push throughout the 2000s especially towards gay marriage. You saw an activist class that was pushing to redefine what marriage is and to redefine what the norms were—who could be joined in holy matrimony. And in 2015 when Obergefell was finally passed, it represented the capstone of a long effort among LGBT activism to have gay marriage legalized across the land. Almost immediately in 2015 you begin to see an acceleration towards the T and LGBT. It was almost as if this domino was down and then that very same Spring—it was the spring before the Obergefell decision—that you saw the Caitlyn Jenner thing happen. And that's really what I remember to be the thing that vaulted this into the headlines, and you began to see this more and more become a move in the culture. And since 2015 and the Caitlyn Jenner episode, this has really been mainstreamed and normalized and it's the next phase of the LGBT revolution. I think it's the latest phase of the larger sexual revolution that's been going on since the 60s and 70s. We're seeing the logical outworking of a view of humanity that is radical and postmodern, but it's been happening for decades.
Brief Historical Lead-Up
Why do you say it's the logical outworking of that?
I don't think in the 1970s when you had the second wave of feminism in full swing and you had feminists like Gloria Steinem and all the rest and they were arguing that a woman can have it all and a woman can do what a man can do and you had this sort of undermining of traditional gender roles, I don't think a lot of people in those days were thinking, What's the logical consequence of saying that there's no difference in a male and a female role, there's no difference in a man and a woman except for what we've learned from culture? So for instance, it was very common to say, Look, your idea of what a man is and what a woman is and their roles in society, those are stereotypes that you learn from culture, you learn from your family, maybe you learn from religion. And a part of the problem with society, second-wave feminists would say, is that we're all beholden to these stereotypes that should have no normative value. We need to be breaking out of these stereotypes. Sure, our bodies are different; but that doesn't mean that our social roles are different. So you begin to have this social constructivist view of human nature and of maleness and femaleness and of gender. I don't think anybody in the 70s was thinking, Oh, we're going to have a transgender revolution where it's not just women inhabiting roles that are non-traditional, it's now a person with a male body saying, “This male body is not signaling anything intrinsic or essential about me. And so if I feel myself to be a woman, even though I have a male body, that's okay. In other words, what I thought about maleness was just a social construct. It's not normative, except for what culture says the way things ought to be. So if I feel myself to be other than what my body is, why not?” So I think that a social constructivist view of human nature, which has been around for decades, has logical implications and it denatures maleness and femaleness and I think the transgender evolution is the logical consequence of all of that.
Culturally Conditioned Ideas about Gender
Do you think there's any validity to any of the critiques of second-wave feminism when it came to gender stereotypes as they would present them? Is there any truth to the idea that there are certain ideas about gender that were more culturally conditioned, weren't actually tied to biology, and weren't actually tied to, as Christians, what Scripture teaches?
I think that there are certainly critiques that we heard from feminism that were legitimate. You can find some in there. If you look at history and you look at the way that men and women have related over the centuries, it's not a track record of great success in the sense that we've had so many moments in culture and time where women weren't treated well. They were treated as sort of less than full image bearers. So there are certain ways that I think some of their critiques were on, but I don't think that their anthropology was ever on point. In other words, they never came up with a solution for problems that they were spying out. And then, of course, because their anthropology was off, some of the things that they viewed as problems I don't think were problems. A feminist critique of what the basic fundamental problem with the world is is power inequities between the sexes, and so the only way to fix that is to equalize power relations between the sexes. Once that's fixed, then basically we're in utopia. That's not actually true. Trying to equalize all of those things is not going to fix everything for one thing, but it's also not consistent with Scripture. So I'm not denying that at times they've spied out actual problems, but if your view of the good life is a total egalitarian vision, that's not consistent with the biblical framework which says, You know what? There are actually rightful authorities in the world. And I'm not talking about just between men or women in the church and in the home; I'm talking about their rightful authorities. It's good that there are governmental authorities. It's good that God puts certain people in charge to run the church. These aren't bad things. Those are viewed by feminists as power inequalities and therefore wrong. And so I don't think feminism ever dealt with the biblical category of rightful authority. They see everything as power inequalities, and so there's a contradiction there.
Feelings, Biology, and Transgenderism
If scientists were to discover a gene, or set of genes, that they could conclusively tie to someone's feelings about their own sexuality and gender—meaning, if there was proof that there is some kind of biological basis for the feelings that people say they experience when it comes to sexuality and their gender—would that make you rethink anything about the issue of transgenderism?
Well, there already are scientific theories that try to explain and pathologize transgenderism. The name of the theory is called brain-sex theory. Let me say this: there is no agreement and there's no scientific consensus on why some people feel a brokenness between what their physical body says and what they feel themselves to be. There's no one theory that accounts for that. But there are a number of different theories, and one of the theories is called the brain-sex theory. The brain-sex theory says that our brains script us towards certain behaviors, and some brains script towards a male sociological pattern and some brains script towards the female sociological pattern; but it very much is a biological thing in the brain, in the mind. And so it's a materialist explanation for maleness and femaleness, that our maleness and femaleness and our sense of ourselves has to do with brain structures and functioning. And so their argument is just what you're saying: it's a matter of your physicality. So what they would argue is that your most important sex organ is not anything in your reproductive system, it's what's between your ears—it's your brain. They argue that because we can observe differences between male and female brains, we can also observe that there are some people with a male body that have a female brain, and there are some females with female bodies that have a male brain. The brain-sex theory of transgender development says that's where this comes from. The only problem with that is that it's not consistent with the biblical worldview of what makes a male and female. Biblically speaking, when you look at Genesis 1 it says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). You've got six days of creation, then on the sixth day of creation you've got male and female created. It says that they're created in the image of God, male and female he made them—he created them in his image. (Gen. 1:27) And then it says, to the male and female, to be fruitful and multiply. (Gen. 1:28) So you've got a binary—maleness and femaleness. The question is, Is maleness and femaleness a matter of one's brain structure and function in Scripture? Maleness and femaleness is not a matter of brain structure and function because it says right after that that they are to be fruitful and multiply. Well, we don't procreate with our brains. In other words, the difference between male and female is based on the body's organization for reproduction. It's not based on brain structures and functions. So the biblical definition of male and female is to look at the body's organization for reproduction and you ask, Is it organized as a male, or is it organized as a female? That's how the Bible is making the difference between male and female, quite apart from brain structures.
So to answer your question then, let's say the brain-sex theory were at some point proved, that wouldn't be evidence that we've redefined male and female. It would be evidence that we live in a broken world, and that in a broken world sometimes things aren't as they should be. To put it in really simple terms, if a person's body says male but their mind is saying female, the mind is wrong. In other words, our minds are fallen and so we don't deny that people can feel a sense of brokenness between what they perceive and sense about themselves and what their body says. We don't deny that—we live in a fallen world. But we don't want to say that just because a person feels that way—and maybe they say that they felt that way from birth, it's not something that they chose even—none of that would be evidence that it was right. It would be evidence that things are not as God originally made them, which in a Christian worldview is due to the fall. So you don't want to baptize what somebody feels to be natural and say that that's right just because you feel it to be natural.
Are Christians Being Unloving?
It seems like one of the critiques often levied against conservative Christians like ourselves who would want to hold the line on what Scripture teaches on these things, just as you said, is that we're unloving and that we don't care about the struggles that people are feeling. People are saying, This is not my choice. I don't want to be this way. I just am this way. Do you think Christians have a responsibility to do more to acknowledge that that might be the case for people, that they're not always choosing to do something that is contrary to Scripture, that they just kind of feel that?
You have to understand there's a lot of different people who identify, or who are identified, as transgender. I think our response as Christians is going to be based on what's going on with this particular person that you're looking at. So it's one thing if you've got a transgender child—excuse me, a child who's feeling feelings of gender confusion—and they didn't ask for this, nobody's really sure where this is coming from, and you've got an issue to deal with there. That's one issue. It's another thing if you're talking about a grown man who cross-dresses and cross-identifies and it's a part of a sexual fetish. There actually is a percentage of adults that this is fetishized. Those are two different issues, and I think it calls for a different pastoral response. I'm not going to take what's going on with a grown man who's got some sort of fetish going on and say that what we conclude about him is the exact same thing we should say to the child, or vice versa. So for instance, if there's a child who is feeling feelings of gender confusion, there's lots of reasons that could possibly be happening. I think it should elicit compassion and feelings of wanting to help and try to clarify and steer the child towards the truth. I don't think you're going to find a lot of kids that this is some sort of a fetish. It's just a totally different thing. So the moral accountability there and the way that you're going to address it is going to be different—that's all I'm saying with that. With children especially—a lot of people don't know this—but with children, so much of the worldview of the culture that we live in is affecting the way we're treating children who are saying they have gender confused feelings. It used to be in the culture that if a little girl liked to play in the mud and play with trucks they would say she's a tomboy. Nobody would say maybe she's transgender that's a different leap.
It almost feels like today we're even more bound up, ironically, in these gender stereotypes. Instead of it being like a girl can actually enjoy playing in the mud too, it's like, Well, she must be a boy.
Oh yeah. Or a kid is not into sports, he's more into music—are we really going to say that's the essence of femininity? That's absurd. So in other words, we have to understand what stereotypes are, what is fundamental to being male and female, and we have to be able to teach our kids that. I think that gets confused a lot. But one thing I'll say about the gender confused child: this is the area where I'm really, really concerned today because I think a lot of children are being shoehorned into these identities that twenty years ago no one would ever have done before. But because there's an ideology in the air, more kids are being shoehorned than used to be. These gender clinics are popping up all over the country. When children present with some sort of gender confusion at the gender clinics, the standards of care are puberty blockers, cross-dressing, and cross-identifying. You give children puberty blockers so that puberty won't come on normally. And if they want to do a full transition to some sort of a sex reassignment surgery when they're an adult, it's easier to do because their body hasn't matured through the normal stages of puberty. And so you've got children on puberty blockers—on these drugs—they're sort of suspending their body's natural development in case they want to make this full transition later. The problem with this is that this is a total experiment. This is harmful. There are studies that show that this inhibits bone development in these children. I'm seeing now younger and younger children, even minor children, getting life-altering surgeries. And it's not just the puberty blockers.
A few years ago National Geographic did a transgender issue and one of the pictures in the magazine was of a boy holding a skateboard—he was 14-years-old—he had his shirt off and was holding a skateboard. But then you look at the caption and you look closer at the picture and you see two scars in the middle of the boy's chest. This was not a boy. It was a girl who'd had a double mastectomy. She was about 14-years-old. The strange thing is that National Geographic thinks it's okay to put a minor female child in their magazine with her shirt off after a double mastectomy. That's insane, and it's insane that people are making these radical changes to the body. And what a lot of people don't know is that these children who express gender confusion and who are prepubescent, eighty to ninety percent of those—without any intervention—all that gender confusion resolves by the time they go through puberty. But now we've got all these kids before puberty and we're shoehorning them into these identities that eighty to ninety percent of them would have probably just grown out of. And so I'm just saying that the pastoral response—the Christian response—has got to take into account that we've got two different populations of people who are being affected by these things in different ways. I'm really concerned about what's going on with kids right now because of this idea that we're going to grease the skids for them to embrace a transgender identity. Instead, they need to be directed towards nature and that God made us male and female and that it's good and to live into that. So that does call for compassion, it does call for listening, it does call for speaking truth. But a lot of people aren't really prepared to do that.
Dealing with Cultural Pressure as Parents
I think many Christian parents would—obviously, if your own child were struggling with some of these feelings that would be a difficult thing right there and it's a lot of wisdom needed to work through that—but even for parents of kids who don't struggle with those feelings, we're living in a culture that seems to be putting increasing pressure on all of us, but especially kids, to conform to a worldview that embraces—not just accept, but embraces—this radically individualistic vision of sexuality and gender. It can be a little bit scary to think about. Do you ever worry about that for your kids?
I do think that we're being forced at earlier ages to have difficult conversations with our kids about the reality of the world and what's going on around us because there's just a lot of confusing things. If you're a Christian parent and you're trying to raise your kids to be Christians, to think about maleness and femaleness in a biblical way, and to think about sexuality in a biblical way, you can hardly turn anywhere today without being confronted with aberrations, deviations from the norm. When I was a kid, I don't think my parents felt like it was an urgent issue to explain to me that two men might want to get married. It just wasn't something that we were looking at. We have to have that conversation with our kids now at ages that we never would have done before. To explain it in this way, This is what the Bible teaches; this is what is happening around us because people don't know the Lord; we love them; we want the best for them; we want to bring the gospel to them.
So you think parents should proactively raise these issues with their kids?
They're going to have to. The question is this: Do you want the culture to bring it up first, or do you want to bring it up first? That's the issue. Do you want to set the table, or do you want the culture to set the table? You can't run and hide from this. You're going to have to have conversations with your children—in age-appropriate ways—to explain what they're seeing around them because it's so pervasive now you can't avoid it. There's no cloister that will make you cloistered enough so that your kids don't have to face this. We homeschool all of our children—that's not going to protect them from seeing these depictions in the culture or seeing people walking down the street. And so I don't want them to be unprepared to deal with that or unprepared to make friends with people who are different. So if you're not talking to your kids and explaining these things, that's not going to be helpful to them, it's not serving them, and the culture is coming for them, so we've got to be going first.
Practical Advice for Talking to Our Kids
So what practical advice do you have? What have you tried to do, very practically speaking, to think about having these conversations with your kids—what ages, are there general patterns that you think would be good for parents to know about?
I don't think there's a one size fits all here. I think your situation is going to determine what your opportunities and obligations are. I'm thinking now in terms of the birds and the bees talk: when do you have that talk with your kids? I think it takes wisdom to know. I don't think it's necessarily the same for everybody in the same situation. But what I would say to parents is this: you need to aim and to strive to be the first to the conversation. You need to lead the conversation, and the first conversation needs to be a first conversation and not the last. Because what you're trying to cultivate here is not just trying to explain the mechanics of things, you're trying to explain what it means to be a male and a female: what your obligations are in terms of a male and a female, what you're trying to grow to be—if you're going be a faithful husband, if you're going to be a faithful wife. There are particular obligations and biblical responsibilities that you're not going to pick up from the culture. You've got to learn that from the home. It's got to be modeled, it's got to be taught, and it's got to be intentional. You're going to have to raise your kids to see that our bodies are not incidental to who we are. It's not an accident that a woman can carry a baby and can literally nurture a baby from her body for nine months, and then after the baby's born that her body physically gives life to a child and nurtures a child in a way that the dad's body does not. And it's not an accident that the dad's body—we're talking about norms here, we're talking about just the way our bodies are designed—but men are designed differently, we're stronger. So those differences have social consequences that aren't arbitrary.
When you look at the commands in Scripture about women caring for the home and about women caring for children, those are not arbitrary commands. Those are commands that are based on the way God made the world and the way that he's made women to care for children and to nurture children and the way he's made men to be able to care for their families, to provide for their families. We're in a fallen world, everything's not always perfect. Not every man is able to do everything that he would like to do, and not every woman is able to do everything that she would like to do. But we're talking about God's design in nature and whether or not we're going to recognize that and whether or not we're going to help our kids to see that. Because what our kids are learning from the culture is that there is no design in nature, that our bodies are just sort of arbitrarily different, our sense of self is only arbitrarily related to what our bodies are. Those are the things that we're going to have to connect for our kids and connect it to biblical norms. If we're not intentionally doing that, you have to understand the culture is going to be telling them something totally different. So they are going to get catechized one way or the other, it's just who do you want to be doing the catechizing?
You talked about how transgenderism, this movement, is just the latest in a series of movements going back many, many years now. What is next? What comes after this?
I think you can already see some of the things that are happening. The basic thing that's happening is the revision of marriage. When we were having the debate leading up to the legalization of gay marriage, people were saying that if you change the norms of marriage, it's going to open up Pandora's box in terms of what you can call marriage and what you call a legitimate or recognized, sanctified, holy sexual relationship. If you change the definition of marriage, then the sky's the limit for what will come next. Gay marriage advocates said, No, that's not what we're trying to do. We just want to say if a man and a woman can be married, and that's recognized in law, then a man and a man or a woman and a woman should be able to as well. It's still a monogamous thing, it's still a one person with one person thing. We're not changing all the norms. It's just the gender part. People who are traditionalist all that time were saying, Why would that be the only thing that changes? The truth of the matter is that we've been changing marriage norms for decades. Long before gay marriage was on the horizon, you saw an accommodation in the culture on divorce. And you saw that even accommodated within churches, where churches were not dealing biblically with divorces. So churches came under the onslaught of the divorce revolution, and so you had a revision of the permanence norm of marriage. And so it's no surprise that other norms were coming after that. The covenantal permanence norm was undermined over years within our culture, and of course there's going be other norms, and one of them was the heterosexual norm that got revised as well. I think the next thing that's coming to be revised is the monogamous norm. We were told, in the run up to gay marriage, that that wasn't really on the table. No, it is on the table.
Encouragement for Those Struggling
Maybe as a last question: maybe there's a Christian listening right now who personally struggles with feeling like they're in the wrong body; or maybe there's someone listening who has a close friend, or family member, or a child who feels that way; maybe they know what the Bible teaches, they believe what the Bible teaches, but it's hard—they're wrestling right now—what encouragement would you offer that person?
The first thing I would say is that the gospel and God's truth is sufficient for any problem. What I mean by that is don't shrink back from really basic things just because it seems like a new and a hard problem. It's going to depend on what the relationship is with the person that you're talking about. If it's a parent to a child, that's going to have a certain set of opportunities and obligations for ministering to that child. It's going to be different if it's a grown man who has a brother who's dealing with these feelings and now they're coming out while he's an adult. You're going to have a different set of opportunities and obligations to minister to that person. But the first thing I want to say for everyone is that you want to speak the truth in love, which means you don't want to indulge a fiction that the culture is telling them to indulge. The culture is telling them, If you have a male body but you feel like a female on the inside, go with that. You don't want to encourage people to go with that. You want to speak biblically about things. You want to speak lovingly, but you want to say, You know what? There's a beautiful, special design that God made of male and female. The differences between male and female are a part of his design. In a fallen world we sometimes feel broken from that design, but it nevertheless is his design. And even when we don't feel like it, it is good for us and it's something that he has planned for our flourishing and for our good. These other paths are not for our flourishing and for our good. So just being able to speak the truth and to do that in love; you need to not shrink back from that. You also need to be able to encourage people that when you feel a conflict between what you would call your own identity—your gender identity—and your bodily identity, you want to encourage people—even people who are suffering—not to resolve that conflict by trying to change their body. In other words, either dressing it differently, adorning it differently, taking hormone blockers, trying to prevent puberty, or trying to take different hormones to try to change secondary sexual characteristics, or—God forbid—having some kind of a surgery that's permanent and that can't be undone. You want to encourage them to resolve any conflicts that they feel in a way that affirms what God has revealed through the body. You don't want to resolve the conflict in a way that effaces what God has revealed through the body. We're in a backwards time right now where people are being encouraged to alter healthy bodies to conform them to a gender confused mind. Our message to people should be, No, we want to take gender confused minds and encourage people to conform those to healthy bodies. This is something that we need to be doing with anyone. If you love your neighbor, you ought to be able to think of ways to do this. And then I'd also say just keep in mind that the gospel still is the power of God unto salvation, and we ought to be looking for opportunities to evangelize all of our neighbors, including those that are dealing with gender conflicted feelings. We ought to have that ready at hand because at the end of the day the thing that's really going to be transformative to people is how God changes us through Christ.
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